Friday, February 20, 2009

Free Trade, Eh?

Barack Obama has made his first international trip as president.

During a day trip to Ottawa, Obama took a different approach to Canadian-American trade than he had at some points during last year's presidential campaign.

I've previously mentioned that there are cross-currents that influence Washington politicians' positions on international trade issues. In recent decades, Republicans have more often supported free trade, while Democrats have tended more toward a protectionist stance (reversing the positions those two parties took a century or so ago). But presidents, regardless of party, generally support free trade more than members of Congress.

While leaving himself a lot of wiggle room, Obama's statements during his visit to Canada seem to have definitely been intended to put forth a free-trade message. He seems to feel the institutional imperative that presidents usually do, to uphold the general interest, rather than the parochial interests of individual districts or states.

I don't mean to be particularly critical of Obama for changing tack with the change in his circumstances.

Recent Republican presidents have sounded like ardent free traders in campaign debates. But Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both took some significant protectionist actions during their administrations.

And Bill Clinton, while saying the right things to protectionist elements in the Democratic base, such as the unions, put together what I consider to be the most pro-free-trade record of any recent president.

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